He called himself a cowboy poet, and he performed wearing an old straw hat. It had been awhile since he rode a horse, but he never really mentioned that. He knew the smell of wet hay, of course, but it’d been years since he scraped dung off his boots. It’s true he missed being out in the fresh air, but he didn’t miss seeing all the redneck brutes. He still remembered seeing the cow’s fear when some were taken off to auction, and his memory still brought a silent tear at the thought of a mother cow’s grief-induced exhaustion.
When pressed, he could still carry on a cowboy’s prattle, but it was undeniably true he was all hat and no cattle.
I was an adult before I realized that barbed wire is not called Bob War, because that was how my grandfather pronounced it, and he happened to be the person who mentioned it to me most often, as he was the person who would always tell us kids that we needed to help repair the fence. Some concerned neighbour would call to tell him some of the cows were out, and he’d tell us to grab some Bob War and git in the truck. We’d drive out to the cow lease, which was several hundred acres, and find the wayward cows, round ‘em up, and repair the fence. Sometimes getting the cows back on the lease was the easy part, and sometimes it took all day.
Repairing the fence was always about the same. First, cut the broken wire and get it out of the way. Second, nail a new piece of wire to a fence post with a fencing staple. You have to get the staple just inside of a barb to keep the wire from slipping through. The hard part is stretching the wire to the next fence post enough to get a barb there to use it to secure the other end of the wire. Sometimes my job was to get the wire in the fencing tool and pull it around the post using the post and tool for leverage. It wasn’t really easy. It required all my limited strength, and it caused me no small amount of anxiety, as my grandfather was not easy going about it. My efforts were usually subject to some harsh criticism.
In the end, though, the cows were always contained, and the fence was always mended – one way or the other. I never felt much happier about it, but that’s how life is when you raise cows. And the cows were fairly happy, I guess, having plenty of room to roam. It made you wonder why they’d ever want to escape in the first place, though sometimes you knew.
Every farmer needs a few bulls, of course, but not too many, so each year we’d cull some of the bulls from the herd and take them to auction where they were bought and either put to pasture or slaughtered. Unless they were breeding stock, the bull calves were castrated and sent on their way to become steers, as steer meat is more desirable than bull meat. I sometimes participated in the making of young steers. You may think the testicles are whacked off with a big knife or something, but we had a device with a strong rubber ring attached and stretched open. We’d pull the testicles through the open ring and then remove the device, which meant the ring constricted around the base of the scrotum. It’s anyone’s guess whether this was more or less pleasant than a big knife.
It wasn’t my concern to know what happened to the calves we sold. I do remember, though, returning to the lease one evening to find a mother cow wandering around the perimeter of the property braying for her calf. She was well-fed and cared for, but she depended on her son’s executioner for winter food, protection, and medication. This is humane farming, you see, not the horrible things you see in the smuggled films from factory farms.
I don’t know how long Mom continued searching and braying for her lost one.
The entire medical research enterprise is built on a foundation of intense and immense animal suffering. Most of the effective treatments we have now were previously tested on non-human animals before they were ever used on humans. On the other hand, most non-human animal research does not lead to an effective treatment or even publishable results.
In Voracious Science and Vulnerable Animals: A Primate Scientist’s Ethical Journey, John Gluck describes his glacially slow transition from primate researcher to animal welfare advocate. Early in his career, Gluck worked on the infamous monkey social-isolation experiments that provided the earth-shattering news that separating infants from their mothers and rearing them in isolation harms their emotional and intellectual development. Thanks to this ground-breaking research, mothers have learned not to raise their babies in small wire cages and occasionally perform painful surgeries on them.
In approximately the same amount of time it took for humans to evolve from other species, Gluck began to realize the great harm he was causing to his beloved monkeys. Gluck apprehended the harm he was doing after personally observing the excruciating suffering of the animals he was studying, seeing the shock in the eyes of non-scientists when he described his work and realizing that he could only describe his work to fellow scientists, having a student present him with Peter Singer’s accurate description of his work, having his lab broken into by animal rights activist, and, finally, talking with philosophers about the rights of animals.
The brilliance of his account is that he illustrates why it was so difficult for him to acknowledge the pain he was causing and why it is next to impossible to engage animal researchers in a debate over the welfare of research animals. Typically, animal researchers say they turn to non-human animals when it would be unethical to test on humans. When pressed, they will agree that animals should be used only when their use benefits the pursuit of scientific knowledge, should be given clean living quarters, should be fed appropriately, and should be given medical treatment when needed. Unless, of course, the scientist is studying the effects of food deprivation, lack of medical treatment, and so on.
The research is further justified by the fact that non-human animals have similar biological and neurological structures that ensure that results in non-human animals can be replicated in human animals. The human who doubts the similarity is scoffed at for being scientifically illiterate. Paradoxically, suggesting that non-human animals, similar to humans in other ways, are also similar to humans in terms of suffering or moral importance is accused of anthropomorphism. The argument is either that animals are not capable of suffering in any meaningful way or that their suffering is of no moral significance.
Gluck describes these arguments and explains that he himself held such seemingly contradictory views because they are taught and repeated ad nauseam until they become ingrained beginning with undergraduate study. Anyone who questions these basic beliefs is either met with laughter or denied entry and participation in research programs. People within the system become so closed off from contrary opinions that they are often surprised when descriptions of their work shocks and offends outsiders. The only explanation for the outrage many scientists will consider is that outsiders cannot understand the importance of their work.
One of the more fascinating events that led to Gluck’s change of heart concerned a human patient who was thought to be severely cognitively impaired. Staff in the patient’s room talked about the woman as if she were an object. Gluck was trying to solve a particular problem. At times, staff could feed the woman from a spoon but at other times she could not swallow. It turned out that she could swallow but was refusing to because she did not appreciate the way certain staff treated her. It was the only form of protest she had at her disposal. When Gluck realized how robust the conscious life of this patient was despite the appearance of minimal cognitive activity, he realized also that he could not say with certainty what thoughts, beliefs, or emotions non-human animals might experience.
Gluck eventually decided to get out of animal research and began teaching courses on research ethics that covered a variety of topics but included discussions of animal welfare. (If you care about the suffering of the animals in his lab, you will be disappointed by what happened to them.) Gluck’s educational programs on research ethics were successful in the sense that they attracted students from a myriad of disciplines and engaged both students and faculty in interesting and enlightening debate on the use of both human and non-human animals in research. Looking back, he is proud of his accomplishment to begin these discussions but admits that animal researchers were the one group that never engaged in the discussions.
Ethicists can attempt to change practices from inside or outside of institutions. Outsider ethicists have more freedom to make bold declarations of misconduct, express outrage, and threaten established practices. Insider ethicists have greater access and opportunity to speak directly with the people who have the power to change practices. Both kinds of ethicists are needed. Gluck is an insider whose thoughts and arguments were enhanced and supported by outsider ethicists. He says he was unable to effect a great deal of change inside research labs, but he was able to speak to researchers as an equal to engage in an ethical discussion. Sadly, insider ethicists who raise ethical alarms are often forced outside. It takes a great deal of courage to risk losing a privileged position inside the castle, and it also takes a great deal of courage to storm the castle gates.
If you are looking for a book with a detailed and comprehensive review of philosophical theory related to animals, you will be disappointed in Voracious Science and Vulnerable Animals; however, if you are looking for an insider’s perspective on the views and outlook of animal researchers, you will find Gluck’s insights and introspection fascinating, even if depressing. The book shows that it possible for researchers to be moved and gain compassion and understanding of the harm they are doing, but it also shows that such progress is slow and infrequent.
I have a bad habit of speculating about what animals, usually my dog or someone else’s pet, are thinking. This leads people close to me to accuse me of anthropomorphism. They say I assume animals experience the world in the same way I do without any real evidence to tell me what kinds of “thoughts” animals might have.
And it is true; I have no way to verify what animals are actually thinking, but I don’t have any reliable way to know what anyone is thinking, so I go about my day assuming animals, especially mammals, experience life more or less as I do, even if they can’t express it with language. I happen to think those of us who make this assumption are kinder than those who don’t. And if we must make assumptions, anyway, we might as well make assumptions that increase kindness in the world.
In Political Emotions, Martha Nussbaum turns the tables on the critics of anthropomorphism. Rather than accusing people of projecting human emotions onto animals, she questions why humans are so insistent on denying that human and nonhuman animals share some emotional experiences. Rather than anthropomorphism, she says, we are guilty of anthropodenial.
Humans have a long history of placing themselves closer to angels than to other mammals. In fact, many humans see themselves as a sort of angel in waiting. We separate ourselves from other animals by drawing a supposed bright line between ourselves and animals. What’s more, humans have a tendency to separate themselves from other humans by projecting animal qualities on others. Humans in despised and marginalized groups are said to be vicious, savage, smelly, dirty, shameless, and stupid. Being no better than animals, members of such groups are often treated much worse than “angels in waiting.”
Nussbaum’s description seems radical in some ways, but the distinction between writers and thinkers who deny the shared experience of human and nonhuman animals and those who embrace the similarities is ancient. Writing in the 16th century, Michel de Montaigne
made many of the same points as Nussbaum. He notes, first, that the humans are the “most wretched and frail” of species yet also the proudest.
He says the human animal “attributes to himself divine qualities, withdraws and separates himself from the crowd of other creatures, cuts out the shares of the animals, his fellows and companions.” And he challenges the assumption, asking, “From what comparison betwixt them and us does he conclude the stupidity he attributes to them?” He points out that we eat, reproduce, protect our young, and generally try to survive right along with all the other animals. Of course, one of the most important similarities is the way we deal with pain, both physical and emotional. He says, “Our crying is common with the greatest part of other animals, and there are but few creatures that are not observed to groan, and bemoan themselves a long time after they come into the world.”
We suffer and bemoan our fate right alongside our animal companions on the earth. While we may wish to bring the heavens under our feet, as he says, we are lowly animals seeking comfort and refuge from fear, hunger, and loneliness. And if humans are wont to declare themselves superior to animals based on an alleged superiority and favor from God, humans are just as likely to attempt to declare themselves superior to other humans—largely by comparing those humans to animals in an effort to degrade them.
Thus, members of other cultures, skin colors, or practices are seen as being savage or beastlike. Their animalism is evident by their alleged smells, filth, aggression, or unchecked sexuality. Not one to shirk from the most extreme cases, Montaigne examines cultural views of cannibals. He describes in gruesome detail the methods of war, capture, and torture reputed to some classes of cannibalistic humans. After Montaigne has thoroughly disgusted his reader, he declares, “I am not sorry that we should here take notice of the barbarous horror of so cruel an action, but that, seeing so clearly into their faults, we should be so blind to our own.”
Without shirking from the most horrifying practices of cannibalistic cultures, Montaigne then turns to examine his own culture. He says, “I conceive there is more barbarity in eating a man alive, than when he is dead; in tearing a body limb from limb by racks and torments, that is yet in perfect sense; in roasting it by degrees; in causing it to be bitten and worried by dogs and swine . . . than to roast and eat him after he is dead.”
He then tells us of a case where cannibals are brought into “civilized” society and shown the pinnacle of human achievement. After they have seen all the finery, the king asked them what they most admired. They said “that they had observed, that there were among us men full and crammed with all manner of commodities, while, in the meantime, their halves were begging at their doors, lean, and half-starved with hunger and poverty; and they thought it strange that these necessitous halves were able to suffer so great an inequality and injustice, and that they did not take the others by the throats, or set fire to their houses.”
“Just when moral vegetarians thought their meal of choice wasn’t sentient, it turns out that plants can totally talk to each other. Even weirder, they communicate through underground fungi. So mushrooms aren’t cool to eat, either. Sorry.”
Because that is how simple moral reasoning is. Morrison assumes, with no evidence, that moral vegetarians base their decisions on whether animals can communicate. This may be because others such as Descartes have denied that animals can have thought without language. Descartes further argued that without thought animals could no more experience suffering than a machine could. Perhaps to make a point, or not, he described some rather vivid scenes of vivisection.
But it is a mistake to think ethical vegetarians are motivated by Descartes’ thinking. We tend to think more along the lines of Jeremy Bentham, who famously said:
“Is it the faculty of reason, or, perhaps, the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month, old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”
In response to the ethical vegetarian’s focus on suffering, some philosophers such as Daniel Dennett have shown that it is at least possible that animals can experience pain without the attendant suffering that vegetarians assume. It is possible that animals are automata that respond to pain without being aware of it, just as we may roll over in our sleep when we become uncomfortable (Dennett’s example). We can feel the pain and respond to it with no awareness whatsoever. (Interestingly, Dennett seems pretty sure dogs, and no other animals, may experience suffering in an otherwise uniquely human way.)
So, ethical vegetarians are stuck between those who claim that plant communication implies suffering that make moral demands on them and people who deny that clear expressions of pain are conclusive evidence that any given creature actually experiences suffering. For me, I’m quite content to assume that plants are not suffering until they express their suffering in a less ambiguous manner (or someone manages to measure it in a more convincing manner). At the same time, I’m content to assume animals with a nervous system similar to mine and pain expressions similar to mine are experiencing some kind of suffering that is enough to motivate some moral concern on my part.
At any rate, I can’t imagine how an indifference to the appearance of suffering can be something to go around bragging about. (And one final note: I really don’t understand vegetarians who are inexplicably eager to explain that they have no concerns whatsoever about the suffering of sentient beings but are only trying to lose weight or something.)